The ins and outs of this powerful yoga pose
Chaturanga Dandasana, or Four-Pointed Staff Pose, sometimes called “low push up,” can be the bane of many Vinyasa or Ashtanga yogis practice. Done correctly it is a powerful pose that creates full-body strength by engaging the core, legs, arms, shoulders and back. Unfortunately, it is rarely taught in detail, so many flow yoga practitioners perform it incorrectly and end up causing injury to their shoulders, especially their rotator cuff muscles. It has been my mission, over the last couple of decades, as a yoga instructor to demystify this amazing pose and help my students get the most out of their practice without strain or injury. I hope to pass some of this wisdom onto you through this post.
In both Vinyasa and Ashtanga practices, we perform Chaturanga Dandasana multiple times per yoga session as part of the Vinyasa Sequence: Plank, Chaturanga, Upward Dog, and Downward Dog. I would like to start by saying that “Chaturanga Dandasana” does not translate to “collapse to the floor before Upward Dog.” It is a pose in and of itself as a lower-to-the-ground version of Plank Pose (Dandasana). It requires a certain amount of physical strength, but there are many ways to modify to make the pose accessible to anyone who can get down on the floor or stand next to a wall. In this post, we will focus on floor variations.
Step one: Alignment
Proper alignment has the whole body in a straight line from head to feet, the same alignment you would have if you were standing upright; here you are just rotated 90 degrees. Your neck, torso, legs, and upper arms are all parallel to the floor and your lower arms are perpendicular. Your elbows are directly over your wrists (palms spread on the floor) and your shoulder joint is directly in front of your elbow joint (see photo).
Step two: Moving into the pose
Typically one comes to this pose from Plank pose. In Plank the shoulders are stacked over the wrists (palms spread), you are on the balls of the feet and you are in a straight line from the top of your head through your heels. This is another pose that requires full-body engagement: abdominals are pulled in while maintaining the natural lumbar curve; quads are working, inner thighs are squeezing, glutes are engaged. Palms are pressing into the floor without causing rounding the upper back, shoulder blades are sliding toward your waist, the chest is open. Head is in line with the spine, eyes look at the floor about 6″ or so in front of your fingertips.
From here, the transition to Chaturanga involves moving both forward and toward the floor, but not every body part moves forward. Although the overall body moves forward, the shoulder blades move backward so that you are not shrugging while you lower. This gives you support from your lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi (your lats) so that your shoulders don’t have to do all of the work. The scapulae moving toward your waist also prevents the shoulder collapse which can cause injury.
Step 3: Modification
A common modification is to place the knees on the floor while keeping the rest of the pose the same (see photos moving from Half-Plank to Half-Chaturanga). You are still moving forward and downward with the shoulder blades moving toward your waist. Make sure the thighs stay off the floor, that you are still engaging your core, quads, adductors, and glutes. Maybe you only bend your elbows a little. At your lowest point, your shoulder joint is level with your elbow joint, but you can also be higher if that will keep your proper alignment.
- Lack of core or leg engagement: this pose is much harder to do when you sag toward the floor. Engaging the core, quads, glutes, and adductors (inner thighs) actually makes this pose easier.
- Shoulders over wrists: although you start in this alignment, at your lowest point, your shoulders should be forward of the wrists, eventually level with the elbows. If your shoulders are over your wrists when you lower down, you will either be shrugging your shoulders or lifting your hips up to compensate.
- Shoulders shrugging: when you shrug, you cause more strain in the upper trapezius (as humans we already tend to hold a lot of tension there) and you risk collapsing into the shoulder joint, causing rotator cuff injury.
- Dropping hips and head: I see this a lot. It feels like you are going toward the floor, but you are losing the integrity of the pose. Keep your head and hips in a straight line and simply “hinge” at the balls of the feet (or knees if you are modifying).
- Looking at feet: connected to dropping the head, if you are looking at your feet, you are not properly aligned. Your gaze (drishti) should be directly below your eyes. I cue having the gaze slightly forward to prevent the drop of the head.
- Collapsing the shoulders: this often causes the hips to go up as well. You are letting gravity win and are going to injure yourself. Chaturanga is a strengthening pose and should be done mindfully; there is no “collapse” in mindfulness. You want to lower toward the floor with control and intention.
To practice Chaturanga and many other poses, join me at Purple Room Yoga, Online Studio! Go to www.purpleroomyoga.com/classes to see my live classes! Can’t make it to class live? Go to my extensive On Demand Library at www.purpleroomyoga.com/on-demand-library.
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